When the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg to eventually become the Jets, I was a little sad and that's not just because Carolina will have to play "divisional" games in Winnipeg next year, but more that I was upset to see a team from a southern market leave. The Canes have had a lot of great games against the Thrashers over the years and I will miss playing them, but I look forward to future contests against the Jets. The NHL's attempt to expand hockey into different markets has seen moderate success but the experiment with Atlanta clearly wasn't working out as attendance at Thrasher games got considerably worse by the season. Couple that with ownership issues and that doesn't bode well for the future of a team in a non-traditional market. There's a lot of people who think that having a hockey a professional hockey team in the southern states will not work and point to the Thrashers moving and the Florida Panthers attendance issues as evidence but the truth is that hockey in non-traditional markets can be successful which is what teams like Nashville, Carolina and even Tampa Bay have proven. The front office putting a good team on the ice is the main key to success, though.
Ever since the Canes won the Cup, Carolina's attendance numbers have been solid in every season but there was a slight downturn in 2009-10 when the Canes were well out of the playoff picture before Christmas but even that year they still managed to fill over 80% of the arena. When the Nashville Predators finally got over the hump and won their playoff series against Anaheim, a lot of pundits talked about how good it was for a team in a Southern market to be succeeding. What about the team who had won the Stanley Cup in 2006? The team who is only two years removed from being in the Eastern Conference Finals? Hell, what about the team a few hundred miles south of us who were just in the Eastern Conference final and recently won a cup in the last decade? Yes, I'm talking about the Tampa Bay Lightning. Teams having success on-ice in non-traditional markets is nothing foreign but the issue is having a fan-base that sticks with the team through the good and bad times.
The Lightning managed to sell out the St. Pete Times Forum in 2006-07 but attendance took a huge dip in the next three seasons as the team began to struggle with ownership issues and iced a lousy team as a result. Things re-surged this season as they are back to 87% capacity, have a winning team and one of the smartest GM's in the game right now. Tampa has proven to be a good market if the team there is good unlike Phoenix who constantly have one of the worst attendance figures in the NHL despite the team making the playoffs the last two seasons. Carolina had an attendance percentage of over 92% the year after they won the cup and that number is teetering around 88% since then. Nashville has been about the same the last five seasons but they saw a huge increase last year. Nashville has grown a lot as a hockey market and the fact that their team has been in the playoffs six of the last seven years helps. Having the luxury of watching a team who manages to at least makes the playoffs on a small budget is part of the reason why Nashville has been celebrated as a success for southern hockey. Their fans have always had a good team to watch and they've been an attractive option for the locals there. The Canes have a Cup under their belt and have had similar attendance records to the Preds but have made the playoffs in only two of the last six years.
Most of you know how crazy the RBC Center can get when it's a sell out. Remember the playoffs? The All-Star Game? Even the game where the team retired Rod Brind'Amour's jersey drew a very big crowd. Give this fanbase something to be excited about and the seats will be filled. The Canes attendance records show that at least 80% of people will show up during a bad year but I'm sure many would like to see that number get better. The truth about hockey in these markets is that fairweather fans are the key to success because fans will be more likely to support a winning team who constantly makes the playoffs, which is what Nashville has done. Tampa and Carolina may have won the Cup before but they've been muddled by inconsistencies and mediocre seasons in between those years.
Atlanta suffered from poor attendance because their front office constantly put a sub-par team on the ice and they only made the playoffs once in their 11 year history, which resulted in them moving to Winnipeg. Florida has similar problems and it's probably even worse because they have only had one winning season in the last ten years. Nashville has developed a strong fan-base but they've had the luxury of watching a solid team for most of their franchise existence. Tampa Bay and Carolina have their die-hards, but most of their fans show up when the team is winning with Tampa's highs and lows being much more extreme than Carolina's. For the Canes and Bolts to develop a following like Nashville's, it may take a couple more consecutive playoff appearances and then we may see over 90% of the RBC Center packed again. There's no chance of these two teams failing like Atlanta did but there's still a lot of room for improvement when it comes to growing the fanbase.